Foundation for a Smoke Free World is not complementary to public health efforts – it’s undermining them

Heather Lusardi, Anna Gilmore, Ulysses Dorotheo

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), established with almost US $1 billion from Philip Morris International, is essentially operating as a front group for Philip Morris International’s (PMI) interests.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, overtures to the public health community have been repeatedly, firmly and publicly rejected:

Yet from the relative safe space of its own website, it continues to make disingenuous attempts to suggest not only that its interests align with public health, but that the work that public health groups like ours do is complementary to its own.

This is fundamentally misleading: we work to reduce tobacco use and protect against its deadly harms; FSFW works to promote the interests of its sole funder, PMI.  Indeed, while claiming public health credentials, FSFW President Derek Yach also claims a “confluence of interest” with PMI, despite clear evidence that PMI continues to try to subvert public health policy and market cigarettes and tobacco products to young people.

A closer look at which organisations FSFW misleadingly claims alignment with is illuminating.

Tobacco Tactics, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP) and Tobacco Free Portfolios (TFP) all appear to be specially chosen. They are all groups whose work focuses, in particular, on the tobacco industry itself, whether for research, monitoring, advocacy or divestment purposes.  At a time when PMI’s main ambition is to convince governments and international organizations that it has transformed (see its PR campaigns around the UN General Assembly, International Labour Organization, World Economic Forum and more) while of course continuing to peddle cigarettes as usual, it is strategically advantageous for FSFW to wrongly claim alignment with those whose work holds PMI to account.

In 2019 it published an FAQ page related to its so-called “Tobacco Transformation Index” on which it claimed it “shares common goals with organizations such as Tobacco Tactics and the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance”. This reference has since been removed following a cease and desist letter from the University of Bath (who host Tobacco Tactics) and SEATCA.

FSFW’s so-called Tobacco Transformation Index itself is a transformed version of what it previously labelled its ‘Smoke free Index’, which copied SEATCA’s successful Smoke-Free Index. After exposure and outrage by the tobacco control community at this apparent co-optation of intellectual property the FSFW quietly adopted the Tobacco Transformation Index moniker.

More recently in January 2020, the Foundation claimed in a blog that the programmes of STOP and Tobacco Free Portfolios are “complementary”  to its operations.

The Foundation appears to have difficulty believing even its own arguments. The blog which opened with a statement of complementarity with Tobacco Free Portfolios and STOP quickly went on to contradict that claim; for example, by proposing that that divestment from tobacco, which TFP promotes, was counterproductive. The evidence the blog cited included a report produced by Wilshire Associates. Of course, the Foundation forgot to acknowledge that Wilshire Associates have previously been commissioned by Philip Morris to produce a report to restore its investment credibility. Their arguments also ignore numerous pieces of research that debunk the so-called “sin-stock outperformance theory”, as made clear by Tobacco Free Portfolios.

Similarly, FSFW’s claims that its Tobacco Transformation Index can be complementary to STOP’s Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index (GTII Index), can be quickly dismissed. The GTII Index assesses how governments fare in their efforts to prevent tobacco industry interference in policy. It seeks to support implementation of Article 5.3 which aims to exclude the tobacco industry from policy making given the overwhelming evidence that the industry itself remains the most serious barrier to progress in tobacco control.  Yet the Foundation’s own index ultimately aims to normalise this very interference, whilst also discouraging the growing divestment trend. In the Foundation’s words it will inter alia “enhance awareness and engagement by investors, [and] policymakers”.

A clear picture is emerging: FSFW is repeatedly attempting to co-opt tobacco control initiatives that threaten its funder and call into question its funder’s attempts to claim it has “transformed”.  It is doing this by producing its own misleading versions of those initiatives as part of its efforts to build public acceptance.

Like the rich bully in the playground, FSFW may continue to put might and money behind these attempts to confuse, co-opt, and confound (with US$1 billion committed from PMI for the next 12 years, and more spent on PR than research in its first year), but it is not part of our work. Unlike the work of the international tobacco control community, FSFW’s work is antithetical, not complementary, to public health. We urge the tobacco control and public health communities to stand firm: together we must continue to support governments to protect themselves against tobacco industry interference in all forms, and block attempts by the industry and all its front groups to undermine progress in tobacco control and interfere with independent science.

Heather Lusardi, is the Coordinating Project Manager for Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP). Anna Gilmore is Professor of Public Health at the University of Bath. Ulysses Dorotheo is Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

STOP is grateful for funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The opinions expressed are those of the authors’ alone. The funders had no role in study design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of this article.

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